Plans for Expanded State Civic Network Gains Support of Open Government Advocates

Advocates for government transparency are lining up in support of legislation that would establish a “state civic network” for Connecticut, similar in structure to the national C‐SPAN model. The independently financed, non-profit network would expand access to the workings of the three branches of state government by building on the present CT-N system, which has been funded directly by the General Assembly since 1999. ctnThe new network would dramatically extend televised and online coverage and “on-demand access” to all legislative hearings and debates, as well as public policy conferences, regulatory hearings, executive agency meetings, and state Supreme Court and Appellate judicial proceedings.

The result would be searchable, shareable library of state government deliberations, decisions and activities – and the tools to make it understandable and useful – available to every citizen through cable TV, online and mobile devices.

“Access to government information is the key way for the public to know what its government is doing,” according to the Connecticut Commission on Freedom of Information. Calling the proposal “pro‐ transparency and cost‐saving,” Executive Director Colleen Murphy underscored the Commission’s commitment to encouraging citizen engagement. The State Civic Network “will bring the workings of government into people’s a most productive, timely, and professional manner.”

The Board Chair of the Connecticut Public Affairs Network, which operates CT-N under contract to the state legislature, indicated that the network “was never intended to be a service OF government, but rather ABOUT government – as are the national and municipal services that welcome citizens to unbiased channels that provide access and context," said veteran Connecticut television news anchor Pat Sheehan. "Technology now allows the coverage of all government activities, archived and searchable files, and presentations that appeal not-only to government insiders, but to the general public as well.”

The public’s expectation of coverage has changed over the past seventeen years,” said Paul Giguere, the founder of the network and CEO of the independent non‐profit Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN). “Technological innovations have changed how and when citizens access information, and a state civic network will use emerging technologies to allow greater public engagement with the development of policies and legislation that affect us all.”

1932481_10152248599276937_845195084824203420_nGiguere pointed out that “there are 10 hearing rooms, but CT¬N’s physical plant limits us to covering only two events concurrently. That means up to 80% of the Legislative committee process at any given time goes unseen. Our capacity to cover the Executive and Judicial Branches is even more limited.”

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) have endorsed the proposed legislation to expand coverage throughout state government, as have advocacy groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), CT Community Non‐Profit Alliance, the League of Women Voters, the Connecticut Education Association, Common Cause, and the Connecticut Citizens Action Group (CCAG).

The proposed State Civic Network is now being considered by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Government Administration and Elections. Under the plan, management and operational funding would be provided through a process that already exists for local community access stations, regulated by PURA, the state’s Public Utility Regulatory Authority. PURA has an extensive history of selecting non‐profit managers for government‐use channels that provide local public, educational, and government programs within cable television franchise areas. These channels are likewise supported through programming fees charged by cable companies, rather than by taxpayer funds, CT-N officials pointed out.

The plan drew opposition from AT&T, with the cable provider warning in legislative testimony that it would "have a real impact on consumers’ ability and willingness to continue to buy video service."   CT-N "should be required to annually justify its budget to the General Assembly like any other proposed expenditure,"AT&T said in a prepared statement.

CFOG, the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government, noted dramatic changes in the way citizens access news, with increased reliance on social media and mobile devices. Funded by a subscriber fee similar to how C‐SPAN and community access stations arestate civic network currently funded, CFOG notes, “the new entity would be monitored and accountable to the public, but independent from government itself.”

The State’s Office of Consumer Counsel, created in 1975 by the legislature to act as the advocate for consumer interests in all matters and “fight for the most reasonable rates,” endorsed the State Civic Network proposal after “carefully analyzing” a monthly fee of less than $0.50 per subscriber. Consumer Counsel Elin Katz said “a thriving democracy requires citizen access to information relating to their government, access that is ideally broad and unfettered.”

“Best of all,” she added, “this proposal will create a permanent and searchable online library of public documents and visual recordings of state government events that would be of great use both to the public and to the elected officials who serve them.”

CPAN launched the CT-N network for the Connecticut General Assembly in 1999 as a 24‐hour media service providing gavel‐to‐gavel coverage of state government and public policy on both television and internet platforms. In the intervening years, CPAN has extended the scope of its CT-N programming, adding coverage of electoral politics, news conferences, and a weekly review program, Capitol Report.